Soft Skull Press, New York City, 2021, 258 pages, $16.95
Senses attuned walking through the city: the crispness of the sounds, the grittiness of the incongruous assembly of buildings and storefronts, the light effects, the pedestrians mired in their moment, even the smells; plugged into the cacophony for the solo passage through the grid, each element contributing to a choral totality that in Mike DeCapite’s hand streams forth like clear whitewater, without decoration, without a superfluous syllable.
In fact, a strong, residual effect of this novel comes from what is not present. Not to give away too much, but the narrative is on its own track, so far away from mainstream formula. The delight of not being absorbed into what most art douses us with every day results in a therapeutic wash. How can a book be so full of love without irony or conflict? He does it.
While there is story-telling going on, a narrative progression depicting a romance from iffy beginning to “in it,” the tenderness of the relationship at the center of this book is complemented by a writing style that I’m hesitant to label “poetic,” for fear of scaring off some potential readers, but let’s say DeCapite handles language with a craft possessed by only the most accomplished writers. That is, there’s more than a “he said, she said” going on. There’s an invigorated language, nothing flighty or ostentatious, but at times, fairly often, our reading experience is surprised with descriptions that do more than provide the details. His language conveys the feeling: Both the human emotion and, when art transforms something into something else, a crafted abstraction independent of the connection. Art as the highest form of generosity: finding the delight in the immediate surroundings and fashioning the experience into exalted communication.
Sometimes the sentences seem unencumbered by self-conscious thought – no hesitation between the spark in the synapses and the words released from DeCapite’s pen, like fine Japanese calligraphy or a fine jazz solo. This might be an illusion. It’s possible they’re chiseled and worked over tediously to arrange the words. Either way, this reader was continually in awe at how a scene/memory/description could become a gift on the page.
Some might call DeCapite a prose stylist, but that’s not quite a suitable definition. I like a phrase Chris Kraus used in her blurb for the book: lyrical realism. DeCapite’s just better at putting words together than most anyone. Sentences slide by engorged with a detail to further the narrative, but at the same time trigger sensory associations similar, I suppose, to someone with synesthesia relating a sound to a color. Sometimes a line or a paragraph can act like a potion that transforms the passive reading experience into a welcome participation. At other times there’s anxiety that things won’t work out, but more often it’s a sharing of desire and subsequently fulfillment. Too, many comments are laugh-out-loud funny.
The momentum of the book is fueled by ordinary, everyday ecstasies – recognizing a light effect, the moment, the chance encounter – as an enhancement worthy of recounting in the assemblage of passing days.
How much more engorged with significance can one short paragraph be:
Friday morning. I’m outside the Y on 14th St, looking east. She walks right out of the sun. Materializes by the newstand.
Or this one-sentence paragraph:
Happiness is just a change in the light.
Rooting the exhilaration of the evolving romance are scenes from the locker room of the author’s gym, in which a crowd of seasoned gents argue the merits of doo-wop and revere Italian-American crooner Jimmy Roselli above all others. The dialog rings authentic and transpires at the snappy pace of a screwball comedy.
But, this is more a novel “of” than “about.” That is, we’re given the narrative in segments interspersed with a few flashbacks or a moment of reflection in which the narrator, Mike, steps up before the proscenium, like on The Abbott and Costello Show after 20 minutes of escapades with Mr. Bacciagalupe. And, as readers, we’re ever in the present. Just the way life works. One chapter, for example, ends with this sentence, both a description and an anticipation:
There was still some light in the sky.
It’s a novel whose markers are the rock venues of the past 50 years, of particular resonance for those who’ve lived in downtown Manhattan, encompassing a scrapbook of bands which offered a generation an alternative to Vietnam, Watergate, and Desert Storm. For those whose allegiance was plugged more into the current of rock n roll and the proper methods for cooking pasta and the transmutations occuring in the sky as the sun sets.
DeCapite is a noticer and chronicler of the highest order. It boils down to: Love is the enabler. In love, senses are sharpened to embrace anything in sight as a contribution. Any sound heard is soundtrack for your personal geometry. Anything is possible, hope functions like chlorophyll. Primarily, this is a book of devotion – to a city of pervasive miracles, yes, but above all to a partner. As well, to the enunciation of that eternally propulsive instinct crafted into a book beautifully written, oftentimes sublimely. It’s a treat to witness, as if Bogie and Bergman’s affair in Casablanca had worked out.